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Exploring The Netherlands With Avalon Waterways

“God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland.”

That proud adage was prominently demonstrated as we stood inside a 460-year-old wooden windmill near Volendam, Netherlands, which was using Mother Nature’s wind to pump water up six feet from a field to a canal.

The windmill’s sails, which can turn at 80 miles per hour in a good wind, can generate enough power to pump 15,000 to 20,000 gallons of water per minute. “That’s one swimming pool a minute,” said the wooden-shoe-clad miller, who gave us a humorous but informative insight into the history and operation of windmills and explained how the industrious Dutch have claimed more than half of their nation from the North Sea.

Since the 13th century, the Dutch have built hundreds of miles of dikes and levees to slowly claim fertile fields called polders from the bottom of the sea, diverting the water into canals. Fifty-five percent of the country is below sea level.

In March, my wife, Marcheta, and I got a firsthand look at that fascinating country and neighboring Belgium when we joined a group of Globus’ platinum-level group leaders on the inaugural voyage of the Impression, one of three new suite ships set to join the European river fleet of Avalon Waterways, a subsidiary of Globus, this year.

During our five-day cruise round-trip from Amsterdam, we experienced many of the iconic images of the Low Country: level verdant fields laced with canals and dikes, cheese, chocolate, flowers, wooden shoes, gabled houses alongside tree-lined canals, bicycles galore, friendly bilingual people and, of course, windmills.


Windmill Towns

After checking into the ship in the morning, we took an optional afternoon tour to the small towns of Edam and Volendam before our departure from Amsterdam that evening.

Our first stop was the windmill.

“A visit to the Netherlands without windmills is not complete,” said Chantelle, our guide for the day.

The oak timber frame of the windmill, which dates from 1650, showed little signs of age, being well preserved by thatch insulation that is replaced every 100 years. There is a renewed interest in preserving and restoring these ingenious and vital machines, whose original number of more than 10,000 has dwindled to only about 1,000.

A short drive took us to the quintessential small Dutch town of Edam. Like windmills, such small towns are a must-visit on any trip to the Netherlands, where you glimpse the everyday life of the friendly locals set amid picturesque and charming venues.

We crossed a centuries-old pedestrian drawbridge over a canal and walked down clean, narrow brick streets lined with gabled houses. A corner shop filled with round yellow cheese rolls the city is famous for was across the street from another scenic canal. Young boys just out of school laughed and yelled as they rode their bicycles up the street.

Our final stop was the historic cheese market, where, in the summer, people in costume re-enact the outdoor cheese auctions that once took place there.

“Edam is a really, really pretty village,” said Chantelle, who got no argument from us.

The nearby town of Volendam is a more touristy big sister to Edam. Although some of the older people still wear the traditional Dutch clothing with its high, pointed bonnet, most of the houses are more modern than in Edam, and the main street along a large lake is filled with souvenir shops and restaurants.


Tulips in Abundance

The Impression sailed overnight, docking early the next morning in Dordrecht, where an impressive christening ceremony with its new sister ship the Poetry II took place that evening.

We took an optional tour to Keukenhof Flower Gardens, which had just opened for the season the day before. The hourlong bus ride took us past flat fields lined with small canals, which help define the fields and control the livestock. There are few fences.

Despite the cold, drizzly day, the gardens were ablaze in a multitude of colors.

The gardens, which are only open for eight weeks in the spring, are designed to showcase the products of various bulb companies in a wide range of outdoor gardens, walkways and indoor pavilions.

Among the 7 million bulbs planted annually, there were yellow fields of daffodils, pink cherry blossoms alongside a small canal, purple hyacinths and red, yellow and white tulips. Each year has a different theme; this year’s was Holland, and tulips took center stage.

Although the Netherlands is famous for its tulips — there are 3,000 types of tulips, with about 500 types planted each year — they are not native to the country but were imported in the late 16th century from the Middle East.

The area between Leiden and Haarlem where Keukenhof is located is the country’s bulb-growing region, so blooms are generally limited to the spring.

“The bulb-growing area is not a flower-growing area,” said Susanne, our guide. “There is a big difference.”